Dismayed by the lack of opportunities for women's leadership, Fatima Khanam seeks to ensure women's equal participation in all spheres of life by improving young female students's understanding of the status and challenges of women in Bangladesh society, and providing concrete employment and leadership programs during their studies.
Fatima Khanam is challenging the existing belief that women cannot change government or business practices that affect their lives, by paving the way for women to become policy- and decision-makers in those arenas. She is combining an improved gender focused education curriculum with extra-curricular programs to develop the leadership potential of young college female students in Bangladesh. A key component of her work revolves around transforming student hostels. Traditionally, student hostels are used only for residential purposes. Fatima, however, views them as potential Women Development Institutes whereby the existing infrastructure can also be utilized as a center for women to come and learn, receive training, develop professional skills and be involved in income generating projects. Concurrently, she is organizing, training and motivating college administrators and teachers to conduct courses in gender and development, a subject area which previously had been severely neglected in Bangladesh.
During her years of work in development, Fatima observed the failure of well meaning national policies encouraging women to participate in the professional work force. The majority of women, particularly rural women, did not possess the educational qualifications and skills necessary for securing positions in government, business, and social sectors. The present education curriculum neither sensitizes women to the challenges and discrimination they face nor provides them with the education and skills necessary to overcome these obstacles.
Over the past decade or more, women's education has been a priority issue for the government, donor agencies, and citizen sector organizations. Despite this, female student dropout rates remain much higher than those of males. Social customs, economic constraints, and unequal opportunities are responsible for the high dropout rate.
The percentage of women entering the professional work force is limited. In addition, most women do not have the opportunities, due to economic difficulties and limited mobility, to develop skills and training that can improve their ability to secure professional jobs. For instance, almost any job applicant needs to have a minimum level of computer literacy and English proficiency. Yet, in the current Bangladesh academic environment, the majority of assignments are handwritten, meaning that most students do not gain substantive experience with computers, and English instruction is relatively poor. Disproportionately few women have had exposure to these subjects, handicapping many of them who apply for professional jobs. Although many businesses encourage women to apply, they are rarely chosen for professional jobs due to their inadequate access to modern skills.
In many countries, students gain professional experience through internships. However, this concept is relatively new in Bangladesh. While some businesses do offer students opportunities to gain experience through internships, very often women are limited in their ability to gain access to these internships due to their inadequate English and computer skills. While many students studying in business programs do pursue internships, those that are outside of these specific business programs or outside of Dhaka city are unable to access these opportunities.
Female students and even educated women are accepting of the inequitable education system. They are not fully aware of the issues and policies that need to be influenced for greater women participation, as the present education curriculum does not include gender and development related topics. Such an ignorance of women's issues in development leads to the apathy which is often characteristic of many of Bangladesh's women entering college.
Fatima recognizes that for women to be fully integrated into Bangladeshi society the education and skills deficit they are encumbered with must be tackled on multiple fronts. Starting in Barisal, a city of over half a million, Fatima is working with students and faculty in four government and five private colleges to provide a holistic education that includes skill development and job skills along with schooling. Fatima focuses on accessing female students both in the classroom and at their student hostels.
To demonstrate and test her ideas she has established a hostel with residential accommodation for fifteen students, a small library focusing on gender and development, a computer-training center and a ball pen production unit. She has also recently opened a ladies's garment store in a market near the hostel. All the residential students are required to complete courses on gender and development, computer literacy, and English.
After completing the computer course, the students work at the computer center. They are involved in training, computer composing, and other related services. For the ball pen enterprise, students are involved in both production and marketing. The ladies's garments store is the only commercial shop in the area to employ women students, and the pen shop also provides employment to non-resident students. The hostel students manage all these enterprises. The income from them is divided between the institution and the students.
Three-member teams are formed for managing each project. They are responsible for ensuring smooth production, sales, and service to customers. Every three months one to two team members are replaced. Thus, all the students are exposed to the different aspects of running a commercial enterprise, thereby developing their management and entrepreneurship skills.
Fatima is also arranging student internship programs with different organizations. By gaining prior experience in the professional world, the students will be better prepared when they graduate. Some may even secure positions in the organizations where they interned.
Along with these activities, Fatima has developed a curriculum, which she has started testing in different colleges of Barisal town, on gender and development issues. She organizes student discussion groups and essay competitions – open to both boys and girls – focusing on women's issues. The participating students are given access to the hostel library for their research work. Fatima's long-term aim is to introduce gender and development within the education curriculum. She feels that women are accepting of their inferior status and discrimination due to a general lack of awareness. She believes that by introducing gender and development issues during their student lives, women will be better prepared to challenge the inequalities in the system and fight for greater women's participation.
In order to bring changes within the education curriculum, Fatima is working with teachers, principals, and education policy makers in Barisal district, as well as with students. The introduction of gender and development curricula is dependent on the principals of the institutions; thus, Fatima works closely with them for their cooperation.
In one particular college the authorities were not admitting women students, as they were not willing to take on the responsibility of ensuring their security. She convinced the principal of the need to change this attitude, and the college is now accepting women students for the first time in four years.
To introduce the concept of gender and development among teachers, she ran a series of one-day workshops in nine different colleges of Barisal town and later developed a gender and development training workshop module to be conducted over a three-day period. As of the end of 1998, close to 350 teachers have participated in these workshops. They in turn assist Fatima in conducting gender and development courses among the students. So far, eighteen teachers are involved full time and nine teachers are involved part time in this task. By the end of 1998, close to 1,000 students, boys and girls, had gone through this course. Fatima also maintains close ties with the Divisional Education Office. She regularly meets with them for exchanging and sharing ideas and information. She hopes that through this exchange as well as the pressure from the teachers and institutions, the policy makers will eventually be convinced of the need to introduce gender and development courses and provide women with greater opportunities to continue their higher studies. Teachers are seeing first-hand that students are performing well in class. They are referring guardians and students to her, making the hostel a focal point for others. Over the next three years, Fatima intends to expand the residential capacity of the hostel to 100 students, develop a resource center and expand the program from Barisal town to the entire division (comprising six districts). She is working with both government and private hostels. Fatima is focusing on the school administration as the entry point for her work as they have the authority to implement changes in hostel management and policy. A few private hostel owners have also approached her. Fatima's long-term vision for hostels is that they should be independent and self-sustaining institutions.
Fatima grew up in a village of Barisal district. Her father passed away when she was very young. This economic uncertainty compelled her to work from an early age and finance her own education, from secondary school up to undergraduate degree level. Once she completed her law degree she started practicing. In one particular case in 1979, she was assisting a more senior lawyer in defending a husband who had thrown acid on his wife's face. When she saw the victim's gruesomely disfigured face, she asked her associate why they were defending the accused. Her associate's answer was that they were doing it for monetary reasons. This event led Fatima to discontinue her work in the legal profession and work for women's development.
Fatima has over 25 years working experience with different international and local organizations. When she was in DANIDA, a donor agency from Denmark, she designed a health program where 500 illiterate and semi-literate women were provided training on heath, nutrition, birth attendance, and other related matters. These women would motivate rural families to practice better nutrition habits, refer them to medical doctors, and deliver medicine and other health services. During her stay at Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service, Fatima observed university graduate women with good academic credentials failing to secure jobs at the organization due to their lack of confidence and skills. Her response was to recruit twelve graduate women and provide them with training in management and professional skill development. These women were hired by different organizations and performed well at the management level. This work was the precursor to her present day project.